On July 2nd, 1936, an impressive ceremony was held in a small city in Saxony. Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, led a procession of Nazi officials through the streets, past ranks of SS troopers and Hitler Youth, winding their way up to the tenth-century monastery that sat on a hill in the middle of the city. There, in the crypt of the monastery, Himmler and his other guests took part in a solemn ritual.
The reason for their gathering in this monastery was one which is very familiar to medieval historians – they were there to commemorate a dead king on the anniversary of his death. The king in question was Henry I (aka Henry the Fowler), who had died 1000 years earlier, on July 2nd, 936. Henry was a member of the Liudolfings, a family of Saxon aristocrats who had been steadily gaining power in the years after the collapse of the Carolingian empire in 888. After the death of Conrad I in 918, Henry was able to take the throne himself. With his rise to the throne, Henry founded a new dynasty of kings and emperors: the Ottonians. Under his descendants, the eastern regions of the former Carolingian empire would be reformed into a new empire, the first German Reich.
Henry, believed to be the first king of the medieval German state, was unsurprisingly an evocative figure in Nazi Germany. Himmler, who already was keenly interested in the origins of the German people, was particularly fascinated by this dead king. To Himmler, Henry was the founder of the first Reich, the inspiration for the Third Reich, and a heroic ancestral figure who embodied German potential.
This meant he, and his body, was of great symbolic significance. Henry’s tomb was housed in the female monastery of Quedlinburg – a place that you’ll have already heard about if you’ve been following this blog. Henry was buried in a stone sarcophagus alongside his wife, Queen Mathilda, and their granddaughter, Abbess Mathilda of Quedlinburg. Their tombs sat in the east end of the church, perched on a knuckle of rock which looked out over the plains stretching to the eastern border of the empire and the lands of the Hungarians beyond it.
Quedlinburg was not just a monastery, it was a powerful political centre in the tenth century. It was a former fortress which looked out towards the border of the empire, and it was a monastery filled with women dedicated to serving God. It was a place where a dead ruler was buried and where other rulers came to hold political meetings and to celebrate Christian festivals. Quedlinburg was full of contradictions and it was those contradictions which made it such a powerful symbolic place for the Ottonians.
The symbolism of this wasn’t just important in the tenth century – Himmler tried to capitalise on it in the twentieth century too. He provided funding for a new sarcophagus for Henry, resplendent in Nazi imagery. He financed research into the grave inscription on Abbess Mathilda’s tomb (which handily concluded that Poland was definitively brought into the German empire under Otto III). And, to top all this off, he turned Quedlinburg itself into a new cult centre for the SS.
Rather than continue as a Christian church, Himmler wanted Quedlinburg, one of the spiritual hearts of the first German empire, to be the spiritual heart for the SS, the elite of the new Reich. From 1936 onwards, the anniversary of Henry I’s death saw new commemorations for the king at in the crypt at Quedlinburg, decorated with massive banners featuring the SS symbol.
In the tenth century, Quedlinburg was a place whose symbolic nature meant it could stand for a whole host of different ideas about power, legitimacy and imperial rule. It was this wealth of symbolic meaning which made Quedlinburg particularly valuable to the Ottonian emperors. It was also these meanings which, a millennium later, drew the attention of those looking to gain legitimacy and imperial rule in Germany for themselves – even if it was under very different circumstances.
* Well, it’s really a female monastery rather than a nunnery as Quedlinburg had canonesses instead of nuns – but ‘Nazis in the female monastery’ isn’t nearly as snappy.